When considering things to do in St. Maarten, it’s essential to know the island’s history. Early French and Dutch settlers vied to make a colonial outpost of the island of St. Maarten (or St. Martin, depending on where on the island you’re standing), but eventually agreed on a compromise. Today, its two parts display distinctive personalities, the elegant yet untamed French capital, Marigot, contrasting with the cobblestoned, commercial downtown of Dutch Philipsburg.
Whether your idea of a perfect day on vacation is lounging on some of the Caribbean’s best beaches, sampling fine French cuisine, or enjoying thrilling adventures high in the rainforest, you’re bound to find it here in St. Maarten.
Discover St. Maarten’s Two Sides
As Europeans began to discover the New World, both Dutch and French settlers staked their claim to St. Maarten. After banding together to ward off Spanish colonizers in 1648, both decided to coexist peacefully. They established the island’s two capitals, and drew up the map we recognize today.
The French north part of the island is called Saint Martin, while the Dutch side—called Sint Maarten—faces south. Each half has its own distinct atmosphere. In Marigot, you can dine at delicious creole eateries or sit outside a beachfront café, listening to conversations in French. Enjoy a slightly faster pace, and a more urban vibe, on the Dutch side, particularly down Front Street in Philipsburg.
Make Your Own Fragrance
Perhaps inspired by the perfumeries of the Cote d’Azur, fragrance is more than a hobby in the French Caribbean. You can explore the rich art of perfumery with masterful teachers at a local factory in Saint Martin.
Everyone has their own perception of the notes common to fragrance. Balmy or fresh? Floral or musk? Citrusy or sweet? You may love the smell of orange blossom, lavender, or warm vanilla.
Learn how perfumes are extracted from such ingredients, then create your own unique eau de parfum. Choose from hundreds of delicate essential oils, and powerful base notes to build a unique scent of your own.
Smell is one of the most powerful, and evocative of all our senses. Back home, that custom fragrance will instantly transport you back to the Caribbean.
Sink Your Toes in the Sand
There is no shortage of excellent beaches on St. Maarten/St. Martin. With 37 to choose from, you are sure to find one to suit.
Start your search for a tropical paradise at Grand Case Beach on the French side of the island. Regarded as one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, it’s a place to claim a sunlounger and umbrella, and relax.
Orient Bay Beach has been called “The Saint-Tropez of the Caribbean” for its fashionable bars, and chic restaurants (and possibly its “clothing optional” side). To see or be seen, you’ll want to try watersports such as parasailing, kitesurfing, or windsurfing.
Another of the best beaches in St. Maarten is Mullet Bay, a long stretch of white sand, and secluded coves. There’s even a golf course nearby if you prefer your sand tidied away in bunkers.
Great Bay Beach is conveniently close to Philipsburg, and easily reached by water taxi. With a long stretch of soft, sugar-white sand, it’s also well-supplied with bars and restaurants
A bit further away, the former fishing village of Simpson Bay has grown into a popular resort area. You’ll find everything from fine dining to casinos, but its beach remains the key attraction.
Savor St. Maarten’s Culinary Scene
St. Maarten has earned itself the nickname of “culinary capital of the West Indies” for good reason. The fusion of Dutch, French, and Caribbean cuisines produces an exciting mix of classic dishes and experimental fusions.
You can’t leave St. Maarten without tasting Caribbean staples such as spicy conch, callaloo, Johnny cakes, or codfish fritters. Stop anywhere for roadside snacks, especially for barbecue, roti, and fried fish.
Trendy spots in Simpson Bay or Marigot coexist right next to local family restaurants (see below for more on these “lolos”). You can even learn to cook your own island-inspired dishes with lessons from a private chef.
Hear the Roar of Jets at Maho Beach
One of the world’s most famous sights is Maho Beach, where the planes roaring overhead to land at Princess Juliana International Airport seem close enough to touch. Coming in slowly from the ocean on final approach, the planes pass directly over the beach at under 100 feet.
Every landing of a big jet sees crowds of photographers and thrill-seekers lining the airport fencing. The local bars and restaurants even post airline arrival times so you can prepare for the next blast.
Arrivals increase in volume in the early afternoon, a great time to enjoy the vibe with a beer and a pizza (named after airlines and aviation terms, appropriately), and stand in the warm, shallow water as a Boeing or Airbus comes into land.
Stroll through Old Street, Philipsburg
The charming historic district of Philipsburg is a must-see for its contrast of brightly-painted Dutch architecture with the tropical Caribbean backdrop. Stroll around, or hop on the trolley train that explores the area.
Popular photo-ops include a vintage car painted in sunshine yellow, and the even more colorful “gingerbread” houses of Walter Plantz Square. Explore the Old Courthouse, then enjoy Front Street for the best St. Maarten shopping experience.
Stop at the duty-free shops for fine jewelry, watches, handmade goods, island souvenirs, and more. Populars buys include handmade Dutch porcelain, flavored rums, spicy sauces—and Dutch cheeses.
Find a Bargain at Marigot Market
A prominent feature of the seafront, Marigot Market bursts with all the colors of seasonal produce, from bright red peppers to glistening fresh fish and other Caribbean seafood. The smell of spices, the shouts of vegetable sellers, and the aromas of food stalls all add to the atmosphere. If you love food, a visit here is one of the best things to do in St. Martin.
Besides fresh produce, there are many stalls selling island souvenirs. You’ll find everything from flavored Caribbean rum and colorful sarongs to paintings and pottery.
Among the food, you’ll want to try the French pastries. Bakeries and patisseries will tempt you with flaky croissants, fresh baguettes, or irresistible macarons.
Admire the Wall of Art, Marigot
Hurricane Irma struck St Maarten in 2017 with winds of 177 mph, and damaged 95% of the island’s buildings. The resilience, energy, and community spirit behind the rebuilding effort is commemorated in this impressively long set of wall murals.
Different artists have each decorated a stretch of wall in their own unique styles. Like an open-air art gallery, it shows off many visions and techniques.
The wall is supported by the nearby Homage Art Hotel, whose own collection is well worth a look. As well as works within the hotel, its well-maintained gardens hold several interesting sculptures.
Zipline Through a Rainforest at Loterie Farm
Eco-tourism tours in St. Maarten are a great way to explore the island’s rainforest. They also help conserve the tropical environment for future generations.
Loterie Farm, a former sugar plantation, is now a nature preserve that is home to thousands of local plant species. It also boasts an exhilarating zipline and adventure course to get your adrenaline pumping.
For adventure seekers, this course is certainly one of the top things to do in St. Maarten. The farm also has hiking trails and a spring-water swimming pool.
Loterie Farm sits in a gorge on the slopes of Pic Paradis, the island’s highest mountain. Its 1,391-ft peak enjoys magnificent views but it’s a tough climb to the top, so opting for a ride in an off-road vehicle is recommended.
Visit St. Bart’s Gorgeous Beaches
St. Bart’s was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and even named for his brother, Bartolomeo. The tiny, remote island is a quiet retreat for many celebrities, and thanks to a high-speed ferry from St. Maarten, you can easily join them for a day.
St. Bart’s has a wide choice of Michelin-starred chefs, whose French-fusion menus make it a gourmet’s paradise. Its upscale restaurants are matched only by the quality of the boutique shopping.
However, its fame still rests on its 22 sugar-sand beaches. If you don’t want to stray far from pretty Gustavia, the capital, Shell Beach is an easy stroll.
Explore the Island in a Jeep
What better way to experience both sides of St. Maarten than on an off-road Jeep adventure? The island is only 37 miles long, so it’s easy to take in a lot of the sights.
Scenic routes will take you through Marigot, along the coastline, and up to lookout points to enjoy breathtaking views. A jet landing at Maho Beach and a swim in its clear Caribbean waters is usually part of the experience.
An alternative is an ATV tour, where you join a small group with an experienced guide. As well as a swimsuit, you’ll need your driving license for this thrilling adventure.
Discover the Open Waters
Sailing is a cultural and community tradition on St. Maarten that is still very much part of daily life. Aside from being one of the best places to go sailing in the Caribbean, the island also proudly hosts international events such the annual 12 Metre Regatta and the Heineken Regatta.
Novices, enthusiasts, and experienced sailors can all board an award-winning racing yacht. Learn the ropes with your crew, sail past the competition and experience the thrill of a professional regatta—a true bucket-list item.
If you prefer to take it slow, hop aboard a custom-built catamaran for a sunset expedition along the coast. Sip champagne as you sail past Philipsburg and tiny fishing villages, unwinding to the sound of gentle ocean waves.
Travel Back in Time at Fort Amsterdam
Built back in 1631, Fort Amsterdam was the first Dutch settlement in the Caribbean. The French, Spanish, and Dutch all fought to have the fort as their own right up to the 19th century.
With that long history, there are many stories to be told here. One of the most interesting is how Peter Stuyvesant, later the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam before it became New York, lost his leg in a siege of 1644.
You can appreciate the difficulties facing any besieger when you take in the fort’s panoramic views over St. Maarten and the Caribbean. The bays and beaches lying under the protection of the impressive 17th-century ruins make for an unforgettable photo op.
See the Vibrant Sea Life
Diving and snorkeling are two of the top things to do in St. Maarten. There are nearly 20 distinct dive sites to choose from, with the shallower ones being ideal for beginners.
You’ll see artifacts from sunken shipwrecks to soft corals and plenty of marine life. Eels, rays, sea turtles, nurse sharks, and more are regularly spotted.
You can even experience the underwater world on a semi-submarine. Descend into the clear blue sea to admire St. Maarten’s bright corals, and colorful marine life through its glass windows.
Either experience is a great way about St. Maarten’s reefs, including those near Creole Rock on the French side. This small island is part of a nature reserve, and is a magnet for snorkelers and divers.
Enjoy a Close Encounter of the Bird Kind
At Parotte Ville Bird Sanctuary, Philipsburg, you can interact with more than 40 species of exotic birds. Photographers will love the chance to capture the vivid plumage of parrots, toucans, and macaws, as well as colorful conures, cockatiels, and rose parakeets.
The park stands in a beautifully landscaped tropical garden with walking paths and water features. Its entertainment, educational, and conservation sides form a complete package that makes it one of the best things to do in St. Maarten.
Critical to many of these birds is the sanctuary’s lush flora, including the unique Sint Maarten Mampoo tree. Fruit trees, cacti, bromeliads, and a number of other plants attract, protect, and feed the rich birdlife.
See the Pink Rocks of Cupecoy
Cupecoy Beach is on the extreme west of St. Maarten, making it a popular place to watch the glorious Caribbean sunset. Reached by the Simpson Bay Causeway, it sits almost on the invisible border with Saint Martin to the north.
Hemmed in by pink limestone cliffs, this secluded spot is also ideal for surfing. However, swimming is less popular due to the picturesque rocks and sometimes rough waves.
That also makes it a good place to escape the crowds, with a laid-back restaurant/bar for the few visitors who drop by. It’s also popular for sunbathing and even has a clothes-optional area.
There are several caves worth exploring, especially for photographers looking for a great frame for those lovely ocean views. The cliffs glow even pinker in the golden hours at the end and beginning of the day.
Take in the View from Fort Louis
While the Dutch have Fort Amsterdam, the French have Fort Louis, a prominent landmark in Marigot. The views from its ramparts over as far as Anguilla are breathtaking.
Built in 1789, the fort had an important role in defending the island during the colonial era. Its design was then the latest in contemporary military architecture.
Named in honor of King Louis XVI of France, it helped keep off attacks from British and Dutch pirates. The wealth of the island depended on its exports of rum, sugar, salt, and coffee.
Rusted cannon still line the fort’s ramparts, and its strategic position is obvious when you look out over the harbor. You’re also likely to see iguanas sunning themselves among the ruins.
Climb Pic Paradis
Pic Paradis—or “Paradise Peak”—is the highest point on St. Martin, reaching 1,391 feet above sea level. From its summit, there are panoramic views of Anguilla, Saba, and both the French and Dutch sides of St. Martin.
It’s a tough hike to the top, but you don’t have to climb all the way up to enjoy some lovely views. Picnic areas have been laid out at various scenic spots on the ascent.
A walk is also a way to see some of the island’s lush vegetation and wildlife. Apart from birds, you may also spot vervet monkeys.
The climb is suitable for anyone of moderate fitness, although there is one short section of scrambling. The trail is mostly shaded, but do bring plenty of water.
Enjoy Making Your Own Ti’Punch
A ti’punch is the French Caribbean equivalent of Cuba’s daiquiri, the rum cocktail made famous by Hemingway. It’s a mix of rum, lime, and cane syrup.
The key ingredient is, naturally, the rum—which has to be an earthy rhum agricole. This is a spirit made from sugarcane juice rather than the more usual molasses.
The French have their own style for many things, and that certainly applies here. A ti’punch is normally served as its individual ingredients for you to make your own.
You start by adding some lime juice, and a lime slice, to your glass. Mix in a few teaspoons of the sugar syrup, then pour in your rhum to taste.
It’s traditional (but not compulsory) not to have ice in a ti’punch (a petit or “small” punch). While the ice smoothes out the drink, it also removes some of its depth and complexity.
Eat Your Way Through Grand Case’s Lolos
Grand Case is known as a jumping-off point for divers exploring Creole Rock. Its long beach is also popular for watersports, with nearby Petit Plage being a quieter sunbathing spot.
Away from the beach, the town is thronged for its Tuesday Art Evenings from February through April. These combine wonderful local crafts, with a chance to dine on set menus at some of St Martin’s best restaurants.
However, you don’t have to visit in high season to taste the Creole cuisine St. Martin is famous for. Dozens of beachfront open-air local restaurants—“lolos”—serve up authentic food made with warmth and love.
This is the place to try Caribbean dishes such as cod fritters, conch stew, or chicken Colombo. This last is a spicy French Caribbean favorite with origins in Sri Lanka; many plantation workers came from South Asia in the 19th century.
St. Martin’s traditional dish of crab and rice is another essential. Any meal should also include Journey/Johnny Cake, a chewy, fried bread that is a Caribbean staple.
Embark on thrilling shore excursions, and make once-in-a-lifetime memories in Philipsburg and beyond. Browse our cruises to St. Maarten and book your next vacation today.